Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson discusses homelessness at the Confederated Salish and Kooentai Tribe's Transitional Living Center in Montana. Photo: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
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Lawmakers seek to reauthorize Indian housing programs questioned by Trump





CORRECTION: On September 15, President Donald Trump nominated Robert Hunter Kurtz to serve as the Assistant Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Public and Indian Housing. Kurtz awaits consideration in the Senate of his nomination. The post has been corrected to reflect the development.

Lawmakers are launching a second attempt to reauthorize Indian programs that have been questioned by President Donald Trump and some Republicans.

Bills introduced in the House and the Senate on Thursday extend the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act for another five years. The effort has bipartisan support although that might not be enough to overcome longstanding obstacles on Capitol Hill.

"I thank my colleagues in the House and Senate who have worked with me in a truly bipartisan, bicameral effort to reduce the burden on tribes and expand opportunity in Native American housing," Rep. Steve Pearce (R-New Mexico), the sponsor of H.R.3864, said in a press release. "By working across the aisle and with tribal leaders nationwide, we are helping to lay the foundation for real, concrete reforms needed in tribal communities."

NAHASDA became law in 1996 in order to help tribes to exercise greater control of housing in their communities. Secretary Ben Carson, the new leader of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, himself has recognized its importance in addressing substandard living conditions in Indian Country.

"The Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act has helped to provide more and better housing for the last 20 yrs," Carson wrote in a post on Twitter ahead of his speech to the United Native American Housing Association last month.

But Carson's boss has offered a contrasting and more controversial view. In a signing statement issued in May, Trump incorrectly described programs included in NAHASDA as ones based on "race," suggesting that his administration doesn't have to fulfill the federal government's trust responsibilities.

Although the statement has been debunked by a member of Trump's own team, it helps explain why Indian Country has been unable to convince Congress to reauthorize the law. Although NAHASDA was renewed without major incident twice -- first in 2002 and again in 2008 -- it has been in limbo ever since it expired four years ago in 2013.

The reason is that some conservative Republicans actually believe Trump is right. Among other concerns, they have objected to provision that help Native Hawaiians even though Congress has been helping Hawaii's first inhabitants with housing since the early 1900s.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Legislative Hearing June 13, 2017

That's why a key lawmaker is pushing a different NAHASDA bill. The best way to reauthorize the law in the current political climate is to remove Native Hawaiians from the debate, according to Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

"Instead of just reintroducing all the past bills, I want to take a fresh look at getting a bill across the finish line.” Hoeven said on June 13, as he explained why S.1275, the Building Useful Initiatives for Indian Land Development Act (BUILD Act), does not include provisions that are deemed too controversial to pass.

The new effort, though, takes the opposite approach. Both H.R.3864, which has three Republican sponsors and five Democratic ones, and S.1895, which is only sponsored by Democrats at this point, include Native Hawaiians. The bills are nearly identical to prior versions that did not clear Congress.

“NAHASDA has helped thousands of Native Hawaiian families through housing assistance and loan guarantee programs, and we must ensure that NAHASDA is fully authorized for Native Hawaiians, Alaska Natives, and Native Americans,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said on Friday.

Complicating matters is Indian Country's stance. The National Congress of American Indians, the largest inter-tribal organization, has been adamant about ensuring Native Hawaiians are included in any NAHASDA vehicle.

"I think the concern is the message it sends, by condoning separate treatment of Native communities," Liana Onnen, a vice president of NCAI and the chair of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, said at the hearing in June.

The National American Indian Housing Council, on the other hand, is less rigid. At the hearing, the organization's leader expressed support for Hoeven's BUILD Act approach even though S.1275 leaves out Native Hawaiians. Yet NAIHC also welcomed the introduction of H.R.3864 and S.1985.

"NAHASDA has allowed tribes to take control of housing development in their communities, and these bills include vital improvements to the program," Chairwoman Sami Jo Difuntorum said in a press release on Friday. "NAIHC stands ready to work with the sponsors and other members of Congress to move the bills through the House and Senate as quickly as possible."

Another obstacle is the lack of leadership at the federal level. Although Secretary Carson has been on the job since March, Trump didn't nominate someone to serve as Assistant Secretary for Public and Indian Housing until September 15. Robert Hunter Kurtz has not yet been confirmed to the post.

As a result, there's no one who can help resolve the NAHASDA disconnect. Although Heidi Frechette has been serving as he Deputy Assistant Secretary for Native American Programs since May 2016, she can't make policy on behalf of the Trump team.

"I'm career staff at HUD so I don't comment on what vehicle is appropriate," Frechette told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in June.

Hoeven, for his part, has said he is open to a broader NAHASDA bill if it stands a chance of moving forward. Difuntorum also said NAIHC's official stance is to support Native Hawaiian programs.

"It is in everyone's best interest to include them in reauthorization," Difuntorum said of Native Hawaiians.

H.R.3864 has been referred to the House Committee on Financial Services, of which Pearce is a member. Since the bill is nearly identical to past versions of the NAHASDA reauthorization, NAIHC believes it has a strong chance of moving forward in the House.

S.1985 has been referred to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. It was introduced by Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), who serves as the panel's vice chair.

"Given the housing crisis in all of Indian Country, we must do all we can to make sure NAHASDA is fully authorized for all Native communities," Udall said.

The committee's June 13 hearing was to take testimony on S.1275. The bill has not been scheduled for a business meeting, the next step in the process.

The text of H.R.3864 and S.1985 are not yet available through Congress.gov. NAIHC has posted a copy on its website.

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